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Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary (2004).

Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary (2004)

Directed by Alex Szalat

Distributed by Icarus Films

51 minutes


Alez Szalat's Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary goes beyond the history of Clara Lemlich Shavelson's early activism into contemporary issues of family, labor, and immigration. Bringing together historic and contemporary scenes of urban streets, interviews with descendents, historians, and labor leaders, labor songs, along with still images of sweatshops, union activities, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the film is a sophisticated treatment of the relationship between past and present.

Clara Lemlich was born in 1886 near Kishinev in the Ukraine. After a pogrom in Kishinev in 1903, she moved to the New York City with her family. There she found work in the garment trades, working long hours and spending late nights at the Broadway Branch of the New York Public Library, educating herself in literature and social theory. In 1909 she delivered a rousing speech in Yiddish at Cooper Union that helped solidify support for what came to be known as the Uprising of 20,000, a strike of mostly young female Jewish and Italian workers for better pay and working conditions. As noted by labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris in an interview in the film, Lemlich was the "spark that struck a tinderbox" in the strikes of 1909. While the strike ended with modest gains by workers, it also demonstrated to the male leadership of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union that women were indeed capable of conducting a strike. The workers' demands were placed in dramatic context in 1911, when 146 young female immigrants lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. Drawing on the richness of the primary source material, Szalat demonstrates the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual character of the strike and the gender dynamics of labor protest in this era.

The film opens with Lemlich Shavelson's daughter and granddaughters watching a dramatization of the famous Cooper Union speech from the film I'm Not Rappaport, and interviews with descendents are interwoven in the biographical narrative. Daughter Rita Margules and three grandchildren remember the lessons of their famous relative. They comb through photos, walk the streets of New York's Lower East Side, and make a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where they discuss some of the family tensions and joys created by activist daughters and parents. Lemlich's family, with whom she lived as a teenager in a two-room tenement apartment, disapproved of her activism. It was the family of her husband Joel Shavelson who encouraged her efforts to better the lives of working people.

Instead of proceeding into a celebratory history of the changes enacted by early twentieth century activism, the film instead looks at contemporary labor issues, drawing on interviews with workers and union organizers and scenes of modern garment shops. Unite Vice President Suzan Conwell talks about the 1909 strike being an inspiration in leading a successful garment workers' strike in Chinatown in 1981.

While Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary would be highly appropriate for classes in US, labor, Jewish, and women's history, it does not question the notion that the industrial labor model is truly representative of working class lives. It is an examination of working class issues as defined by the structure of industrial work. Curiously, Lemlich Shavelson's very significant work in organizing rent and food price strikes by housewives in the 1930s is not even touched upon. It was this work that demonstrated women's power to create changes for working people through neighborhood activism. While Lemlich Shavelson remained committed to union and to socialist organizations, she also found them rather unwilling to address pressing issues outside of the industrial workplace, like overpriced rents and foods. To learn about these efforts, one must go to Annelise Orleck's important work on industrial feminism Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965.

The power of Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary resides in its approach to activist heritage. The voice of the actor playing Lemlich fades into the voices of her descendents reading her diary aloud. The long hours, exploitation, low pay, and hazardous conditions endured by early twentieth century laborers are shown in the context of contemporary struggles by immigrant workers against very similar conditions. The historic descriptions of the crowded, stuffy tenements are read as we see scenes of those same tenements used as housing today. Szalat's major achievement is in demonstrating the present need to draw upon activist models from the past.

Tammy Stone-Gordon

University of North Carolina Wilmington
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Author:Stone-Gordon, Tammy
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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